Authors: Bruce Alexander
I, Jeremy Proctor, must start this narrative of one of the most singular cases of Sir John Fielding, magistrate of the Bow Street Court, with an admission. To put it plain, I was not present at the beginning of this case. Indeed, no, rather was I revisiting Portsmouth in the company of Gabriel Donnelly, doctor of medicine and a surgeon, medical examiner for the City of Westminster, and friend to us all at Number 4 Bow Street. In the past, I have prided myself on putting before you each of these cases in toto — that is to say, from start to finish. Yet, in this instance, I had left London at the invitation of Mr. Donnelly and with Sir John’s kind permission that I might look upon a scientific experiment conducted by one known throughout England and in all of the great cities of Europe, to wit, Benjamin Franklin. By an odd turn of fate, Dr. Franklin himself figured very prominently indeed in the case in question. And so, upon further consideration, perhaps I was, after all, present at the beginning of the case, for stories can be told from many a perspective and point-of-view; and what are criminal cases but stories of a certain sort?
Mr. Donnelly and I had traveled down to Portsmouth with an Arthur Lee, also a gentleman of the colonies, who had something to do with Dr. Franklin’s duties as factor for a number of colonies — Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, and a couple of others. What that something was, I have no idea, but it was plain that he was a great supporter of Franklin in all the latter’s endeavors. Indeed he talked of little else through the length of our journey, so pleased was he at the prospect of assisting the great man in one of his studies. It should be noted, by the bye, that Lee himself was a man of no little learning. Already a medical doctor (which did account for his acquaintance with Mr. Donnelly), he had come to London to read the law. I knew not, nor did I ever discover, what he planned to do with so much learning in fields so greatly disparate. Yet he seemed to have time enough and money enough to indulge himself in this way. And since he had hired the coach, and I was riding to Portsmouth as his guest, I made no inquiry, and neither, as I noted, did Mr. Donnelly.
We stayed the night at the George. The old inn was filled to bursting. There were many, like ourselves, down from London to see what the famous Franklin was up to, but some of those were not properly respectful — or so it seemed to me. As we ate our dinner that evening, those at the next table talked loudly and with accompanying sneers about “that fool Franklin.’ And one, I recall, referred to him as “the silly colonial cod.” It was all Lee could do to restrain himself from leaping up and challenging the entire table, at which three sat, to a duel in fisticuffs. Fortunately, they had preceded us; they finished early.
“Those are the fools,” said Arthur Lee, watching them go. “They know naught of science and care less.”
“It is not for his science such men revile him, but for his politics and his fame,” said Mr. Donnelly. “They believe he goes too far with that slogan of his, ‘No taxation without representation.’”
“And do you believe he goes too far?”
“Naturally not, for I am an Irishman.”
“If they only knew,” said Lee. “There are many in America who would go much further than Dr. Franklin does.”
“Perhaps they do know,” said Mr. Donnelly, “and that is what they fear.”
With that, discussion of the matter ended, and Mr. Donnelly, ever the peacemaker, moved conversation quite gracefully to the matter of the morrow’s experiment. There was much of it I did not understand. Or, perhaps better put, I did understand it yet thought it a bit daft.
As Arthur Lee had explained earlier, Dr. Franklin had decided to take the advice of Pliny the Elder quite seriously, and attempt to still rough waters by pouring a quantity of oil over them. This, it was said, had been a common practice by seamen of that time. Franklin had described to Lyee incidents which he had experienced, and others that had been related to him that seemed to support this theory. I could not but wonder why, if it had been common knowledge in Pliny’s time, it had not been put to the test by Pliny himself, nor by any since his time. Still, it would be tested in the morn with the aid and cooperation of Captain Bentinck.
“Bentinck? ” echoed Mr. Donnelly. “What sort of name is that?”
“Dutch, actually,” said Lee. “Those on the Continent have ever been willing to give his experiments and theories greater support, and have treated them with greater seriousness, than have those here in England. Why, did you know that this very year, only a few months past, he was elected one of only eight ‘foreign associates’ of the French Royal Academy of Sciences?”
“Indeed, no, I did not,” said Nhr. Donnelly.
What followed then was a recitation by Lee of the honors and various forms of recognition Franklin had received from academic bodies in Europe. It was a most impressive list, well annotated by Lee as to the meaning and importance of each item on it. Nevertheless, such was not, intrinsically, of much interest. There was little that we — Mr. Donnelly and I — could do but nod our approval as we chewed at our dinner, and continue nodding as the exacting journey from London gradually overcame us. In short, we near fell asleep there at the table. And though we did not, we came near enough that we were forced to say our good-nights and make for our room promptly at dinner’s end. There would be no pleasant tippling for us by the great fireplace in the next room.
Mr. Donnelly and I agreed that, no doubt, Benjamin Franklin had no greater friend nor enthusiast in this world than Arthur Lee. Still, it was true that an excess of praise for any man or matter would surely stifle enthusiasm in others.
Early to bed and early to rise, we were up and about at dawn. After a hurried breakfast of tea, hot rolls, and country butter, we ventured out into the early morn, one typical of that coast in that season. It was blustering, windy, and damp — what the natives thereabouts call a “blowy” day. We looked about for Arthur Lee but saw no sign of him. We had knocked upon his door without result.
asked after him at the desk, and looked round and about for him during our brief visit to the crowded dining room. He was nowhere to be seen.
“Well, I suppose we’ve no choice but to go down to the shore and look for him there,” said Mr. D. “I hear a bit of noise coming from that direction. Perhaps Franklin is marshaling his forces there.”
And so, we started down the slight hill with a crowd of the curious behind us. Now was it much lighter, and arriving at the shore we had no difficulty discerning a group of three preparing to leave in a bumboat tied up at a wharf. ‘Twas I, with the youngest pair of eyes, who perceived Arthur Lee among them. And ‘twas Mr. Donnelly, with his great pair of Irish lungs, who hallooed him across the distance. Waving his response, Lee separated from the others and hurried toward us as we jog-trotted to him.
“Ah, here you are then,” said he once close enough to be heard without a shout.
“Indeed we are,” said Mr. Donnelly as we met. “We knocked upon your door without result. You must have been up very early.”
“For hours! I could not sleep; so eager was I to be on with the experiment. You will also play a part.”
“Ah, what sort? “
“Dr. Franklin would like you and all others to occupy that point of land on the windward side, out there between the hospital and Jillecker. There you will have the best view of the experiment, and, more important, you will be able to report to us on its success or failure.”
“Dear God,” said Mr. Donnelly, somewhat intimidated, “are we to have such a great responsibility?”
“Not so great, after all. You need only report as to whether there was or was not a diminishing of the surf in that part of the shore.”
“I see. Well, we can certainly do that.”
“Of course you can. We’ll meet again on the wharf when all is done, and you can make your report. Fair enough?”
Lee offered his hand in the way favored by gentlemen of the colonies, and Mr. Donnelly grasped it and gave it a good firm shake.
“Sir?” said I, hoping to hold him a moment longer. “Mr. Lee, sir?”
“That’s Dr. Lee, if you please.”
“Forgive me, Dr. Lee, but I was wondering, is Dr. Franklin one of the two men on the wharf?”
He turned to look where I pointed.
“The shorter of the two, the stout one,” said I, tr)dng to be helpful.
“I’ll thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head, young man,” said he. “Dr. Franklin is a fine figure of a man, one of athletic capabilities and one most attractive to women.”
“Forgive me, sir. I meant no disrespect.”
With a great harrumph, Doctor Lee stalked off toward the wharf, lea\4ng the two of us staring after him, puzzled and a bit shocked.
“Ah, these colonial fellows,” said Mr. Donnelly. “They are as tetchy and mean-minded as any Scotsman ever I met.”
“Truly, Mr. Donnelly, I meant no ill. ‘
“Of course you did not. And for your information, Jeremy, the shorter of the two men there, he who is indubitably stout, is none other than Benjamin Franklin, I am sure of it. Now, if you will excuse me, I have an announcement to make to the throng gathered behind us.”
And so saying, he turned round and gave notice to the fifty or more who had gathered behind us that we were all to proceed to the point of land some distance ahead from which we might best view … et cetera.
The walk to the point designated by Dr. Lee was well over a mile, most of it along the shoreline on a rough, rock-strewn beach. By the time we reached our destination, a long line of marchers stretched out behind us, yet all eventually collected there on the windward side of the point, and there we all waited for the demonstration to begin.
It was, as we had been told, quite the best place to view these singular proceedings. About the time of our arrival, we saw one among the many ships anchored offshore lowering a boat of considerable size, followed b’ what Mr. Donnelly informed me was a barge: a simple flat-bottomed boat. There were but two men in the barge, while the longboat had a complement aboard. Seamen manned the oars. A line was tossed to the barge and made fast; and in no time the two crafts were off together, the longboat providing the power with its oarsmen, towing the barge at a good rate of speed a quarter of a mile offshore. There was great activity aboard the barge. Two men — was one of them Dr. Lee? — held a large bottle up to the gunwale and from it poured a thick liquid of some sort — presumably oil — in a steady stream over the side.
Something now must be said about the weather. As I said earlier, it was a perfectly common sort of day for that part of the coast in that season. Which is to say, it was windy and damp. For a good part of the time we watched the two smaller vessels make their passage back and forth, a light rain blew in our faces.
And if the beach along which we walked to reach our chosen point of observation was notably littered with rocks of up to medium size, then so also was the beach upon which we had collected to watch the surf for changes. Indeed, there were rocks everywhere — even, I was sure, in great number beneath the water’s surface, as well. I could see two of the largest out from the beach and above the surface, kicking up a great lot of foam as the high water dashed against them.
The wind drove the water straight at the beach, where it broke, spuming and frothing across the sand and rocks. We watched as the waves broke upon the shore, hoping and even expecting that the surf would slack off in the next moment or two. Yet with the best will in the world we would not honestly say that the surf had diminished in the slightest degree. After near half an hour spent thus, at such time as the longboat and the barge ceased plying the monotonous course I have described, we on the shore turned away and began to talk amongst ourselves of the experiment and how it went wrong.
“I know not why I bothered to come this long way to Portsmouth,” said one of those who had railed at Dr. Franklin the night before. “Such a theory seems pure nonsense. Bound to fail.”
“I know why,” said his companion. “So that when he is next praised beyond reason at Lady Richmond’s table, you will have an interesting titbit with which to counter all that Franklin-mania.”
“Ah, will I indeed! All this foolish tittle-tattle of what-will-he-do-next when the fellow is nothing short of a traitor to the crown.”
“He’ll get what he deserves soon enough, and when he does I daresay he’ll …”
The voices of the two detractors faded in the wind as they marched off with the rest whence we had come. We watched them go. Soon we were alone on the beach.
“It’s just as you said,” I remarked to Mr. Donnelly. “They dismiss his science on political grounds. ” I hesitated just a bit, but then did I plunge boldly forward: “But truly, sir, did not the theory he sought to test seem a bit far-fetched to you? After all, taking a page from Pliny! Hardly what one would call modern science.”
“Far-fetched? Perhaps, but perhaps not. I’m a medical doctor who happens also to have some skill as a surgeon. I know little of the other branches of science.”